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The New Abolition

The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social GospelThe New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After emancipation leaders in the Black church had to cope with new realities--segregation and lynching. This is the story of the generation that developed the Black Social Gospel and laid the groundwork for the liberation efforts of the Civil Rights generation of the middle twentieth century. Besides DuBois, many of the people covered in this volume are mostly unknown. And the stories of political struggles and personal relationships equal the stories of the early centuries of Christianity as the difficult but good work is done to create a theology relevant to the people.

The Black church may have saved Christianity by focusing our attention on the liberation of Jesus and expunging our modern theology of its inherent white supremacy. This is part of the story of how that happened.

I have only two complaints with the book. I did not like the organization. Chapters might cover 100 pages with chapter sections running to 30 pages. Better to break into more chapters. And the book was neither a linear chronology nor a series of foci on major figures but a strange blending of the two which was at times confusing to me.

The very final section includes a very good theological analysis of the cross in this tradition (borrowing heavily from James Cone). I wish the author had included more theological reflection like this throughout the volume.

Overall, a magisterial work and well worth the months of effort I put into it.

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The Bible is with the Poor

George Washington Woodbey
George Washington Woodbey,
 was  a black minister who ran for lieutenant governor of Nebraska in 1896. He later became a Socialist speaker and according to Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, "He got a movement going in Omaha, speaking every night in the streets and parks. A Nebraska comrade later told Socialist organizer A. W. Ricker, 'Omaha had never had the crowds that attended Woodbey's meetings.'" I'm intrigued to learn more about this chapter of Omaha history.

The Bible is loaded with normative ethical statements bearing on politics, Woodbey stressed.  More precisely, the Bible is loaded with Socialism.  Woodbey marshaled biblical texts opposing rent, interest, profits, love of money, and the exploitation of the poor.  Rent is a violation of the fundamental biblical principle that the earth was given to all of humankind as a home.  To violate the law of common ownership is to commit sin.  Socialism, Woodbey argued, was a modern political expression of the biblical right to cooperative ownership and control of the land.  In the Bible, the land belonged to God and the Israelites were tenants upon it.  In modern capitalism, a handful of "cunning" types stole possession of the earth to live off the labor of others. Woodbey contended that only Socialism came close to the biblical law suspending agricultural work in the seventh year and canceling all debts in the Jubilee fiftieth year. . . In biblical times, the aim of the Jubilee was to prevent huge debts from accumulating "for parasites to live upon from age to age, as they do today."

He even understood the connections between economics and environmentalism:

Isaiah 24 was another staple of Woodbey's street preaching.  Verse 5 pictured the earth lying polluted from the ravages of its inhabitants, who broke God's laws, violated the statutes, and broke the everlasting covenant.  To Woodbey, this text was mostly about economic injustice--the defilement of creation by economic greed.

Woodbey believed in open borders: "I am in favor of throwing the entire world open to the inhabitants of the world.  There are no foreigners, and cannot be, unless some person came down from Mars, or Jupiter, or some place."

Dorrien describes:

Woodbey spoke the same language about "new abolition" and "new emancipation" that the NAACP liberals used, but he insisted that emancipation had to cut deeper and wider, liberating the vast masses of the poor from poverty. America was supposed to be a democracy, but Congress and the courts defended the right of individual capitalists to own what the public needed. To Woodbey, there was little difference between the capitalist and slaveholder uses of government.  Both relied on government to protect their ostensible rights to dominate people lacking effective rights.

Dorrien writes that Woodbey grew frustrated with atheist Socialists and anti-Socialist Christians.  Woodbey proclaimed, "The Bible, in every line of it, is with the poor as against their oppressors."


Barbarities of Fundamentalism

Walter Francis White

Walter Francis White led the NAACP from 1931-1955.  He could pass for white and exploited that as an investigator.  As Gary Dorrien writes, he "undertook assignments in the South, passing for white to investigate lynchings.  Risking his life repeatedly, White investigated forty-one lynchings and eight race riots."

In 1929 he published Rope and Faggot: An Interview with Judge Lynch in which he concluded that "lynching mania could only have occurred in a Christian society."  He "equated racist terrorism with fundamentalism."  He wrote:

It is the Christian South, boasting of its imperviousness to the heretical doctrines of modernism, that mutilates and burns Negroes, barbarities unmatched in any other part of the world.

Note: Omaha had a horribly violent lynching in the early twentieth century.  Protestant Fundamentalism probably does not explain that lynching.

White wrote, "Baptist and Methodist preachers were the very best material for Klan organizers."

White grew up at First Congregational Atlanta.

"The Source of Power" was the last post in this series on The New Abolition by Gary Dorrien.


The Source of Power

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"Until he started school at the age of seven," Gary Dorrien writes about Adam Clayton Powell, Senior, who was born in in 1865, "he had one piece of clothing, a shirt made of a bleached flour sack.  His bed was a bag filled with cornhusks. In decent crop years he ate corn and wheat; at other times he had to subsist on dried apples and black-eyed peas."  But he was whip smart.  On his first day of school, he memorized the alphabet.  He soon memorized the Gospel of John.

Powell characterized himself as a Progressive and not as a Fundamentalist or a Modernist.  Dorrien writes, "Progressives worshipped the biblical God of love and embraced the social gospel of Jesus without submitting to literalistic tests of orthodoxy."  He was known for bridging the divide between intellectual preaching and emotional worship and grew the churches he pastored.  Dorrien writes, "He was theologically liberal and evangelical, an exponent of biblical criticism and biblically centered, and politically pro-Washington and anti-Washington."

And also developed a wide array of church programs and ministries.  "To save a man is to get him out of a bad environment and to put him into a good one with Jesus Christ as his example, ideal, and inspiration."

"When you get a man into heaven, he is not worth anything more to his family and the world; but when you can get heaven into him, you have done a great deal for Christ and humanity."

Praying "with a heart cleansed of carnal rubbish, the little Ultimate Reality in [a person's] soul rises like the tide to meet the great Ultimate Reality, which is God, and he becomes conscious of the fact that he is in touch with the source of power."

During the onset of World War I he declared, "While we love our flag and country, we do not believe in fighting for protection of commerce on the high seas until the powers that be give us at least some verbal assurance that the property and lives of the members of our race are going to be protected on land from Maine to Mississippi."

Dorrien writes, "True patriotism, he preached, was love of one's country plus something higher--an unselfish devotion to the highest ethical and spiritual ideals."  Powell said, "Patriotism is not only a love for one's country and nation but a love for weak suffering people everywhere."

Powell advocated pressing for civil rights during the war, while other leaders like DuBois cautioned waiting.  Powell ultimately believed the war made things worse for black people.

He wanted Abyssinian Baptist Church to employ only black builders when they built their new building in Harlem, but they could not find enough.  He was angry and apologized for his attacks on Booker T. Washington's emphasis on industrial education.

Dorrien writes "If one proposed to follow Jesus, Powell urged, one had to take up the costly, fellow-suffering discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount."  It was this theme which deeply influence Dietrich Bonhoeffer who attended Powell's church while a student.  Given that this theme as worked out by Bonhoeffer has been one of the most influential in theology in the last century, it is far past time to give the source its due.

There is a disappointing paragraph in which Dorrien details Powell's homophobia.

In politics he wanted great leaders: "I am appealing for men who will get in touch with world currents and world movements, men with cosmopolitan spirits, men whose purview has been so broadened that they can say, 'The world is my country and all mankind my countrymen.'"  One sighs to think of our current leadership.

He was an early proponent of Gandhi, who of course came to influence the next two generations of African American civil rights leaders.

I was appalled by this statement of Powell's "Had not thousands of Negro ministers preached the meekness of Jesus to their people, they would have long ago suffered the tragic fate of the Indians."  What of the religious tradition of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey?

But I liked this one, "These spirituals are the finest revelation of the will and heart of God outside of the Bible."

As World War II began he said, "The greatest danger to the civilization of the United States is not Germany, Japan, or any other foreign country but the vitriolic hate which exists between the white and the colored living withing its borders.  This hatred is at an all-time high and is mounting higher every day."

Dorrien writes, "Powell stressed that he had been a hoodlum, so he knew what it felt like.  The church had saved him from a short, destructive, and meaningless life.  Now the church had to pour itself out for a generation of nihilistic wreckers."  Powell proclaimed, "Don't shoot them.  Don't send them to a reform school.  Don't brutalize them, but brotherize them."

During his 29 years pastoring Abyssinian Church, the congregation grew from 1600 to 14,000 members.  In a charge to his son and heir, Powell said:

Preach with all the power of your soul, body, and mind the old-time simple Gospel because it is a fountain for the unclean, food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, strength for the weak, a solace for the sorrowing, medicine for the sick, and eternal life for the dying.

"The Superior Individual" about Nannie H. Burroughs was the last post in this series.


The Superior Individual

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"Preachers, teachers, leaders , welfare workers ought to address themselves to the supreme task of teaching the entire [African-American] race to glorify what it has--its face (its color); its place (its homes and communities); its grace (its spiritual endowment)," wrote Nannie H. Burroughs the founding leader of the Women's Convention Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention and one of the founders of the Black Social Gospel in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition.  I'm glad to have discovered Burroughs through this book.

Of her Dorrien writes, "Burroughs brushed off conservative male constraints and middle-class family conventions, stressing something that made her controversial in the National Baptist Convention (feminist ideology), something that defined her career (the dignity of working-class women's labor), and something that defined her denomination (race pride)."

The annual women's convention were largely made up of working class women, domestics in particular.  "Women came to the convention to be inspired by each other and to draw strength for the fight against poverty and abuse."  The auxiliary was organized to counter the sexism in the church, this despite the fact that, according to Burroughs, "The women are carrying the burden. . . .  They've made possible all we have around us--church, home, school, business."

She taught that working class African-American women were morally superior to most people, particularly white people. "Let us at all time and on all occasions remember that the quiet, dignified individual who is respectful to others is after all the superior individual."

She believed in an active church.: "If a congregation did nothing to improve the life of its community, it had not business being a church and no community should support it."  In churches there was "too much Heaven and too little practical Christian living."  She advocated the teaching of moral character.

She was called "the female Booker T. Washington" but Dorrien notes that she sided with DuBois on the need for protest politics.  He writes that "respectability and social justice politics fit together for Burroughs."  Then he quotes Evelyn Brooks Higginbothm in discussing Burroughs, "The politics of respectability, while emphasizing self-help strategies and intra-group reform, provided the platform from which black church women came to demand full equality with white America."

This historical fact made me wonder two things: 1) since church women were so essential to the civil rights marches and protests, Burroughs role is probably significantly underestimated; and 2) when I was taught about the Washington-DuBois debate in tenth grade American history, how interesting it would have been to also learn about Burroughs feminist synthesis of the two.

Like many of these early 20th century theologians, she anticipated movements from later in the century.  For instance, "I believe it is the Negro's sacred duty to spiritualize American life and popularize his own color instead of worshipping the color (or lack of color) of another race."

Burroughs advocated natural color and natural hair, long before that became a trend.  However, she was also against interracial marriage and jazz music.  She thought that the latter would demoralize people and lure them away from holy living.

Like many black leaders of her era, she was a Republican.  She was also a sharp critic of the New Deal.  Dorrien writes, "The Democratic Party, to her, became a perfect nightmare under Roosevelt, still dedicated to racist barriers in the South, but now committed to coddling an underclass of dependents."  She equated the welfare programs with "moral slavery."

But she also understood the need for revolution.  When Harlem explored in 1935 she wrote "They have been goaded, hounded, driven around, herded, held down, kicked around and roasted alive.  In Harlem the cornered rats fought back."

I enjoyed this point--"She waved off the 'great noise about the race problem,' countering that there was no such thing.  There was only the fact that white Americans treated black Americans despicably."  A nice, straightforward cutting to the point.

She was also not naive, writing "Yes, we are living in a dark period and it is going to be worse for a while, but I believe that God will lead his people through."

I definitely want to learn more about Nannie Burroughs.


Advancement through Education

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"For the majority that established the National Baptist Convention, the church was a refuge from a hostile white society. Black Baptists used the philosophy of self-help to survive Jim Crow, preaching a gospel of advancement through education," writes Gary Dorrien in the opening of the sixth chapter of The New Abolition in which he tells the story of the Baptists (chapter five having covered the Methodists).

He begins with William Simmons, who was president of State University (later Simmons University) in Kentucky beginning in 1880 who was a preacher, academic, activist, and journalist.  He wrote, "If the industrial craze be not watched, our literary institutions will be turned into workshops and our scholars into servants and journeymen.  Keep the literary and industrial apart.  Let the former be stamped deeply so it will not be mistaken.  We need scholars."

And Dorrien writes that he was a "feminist activist" recognizing "that women, if organized, could be a source of creativity and power in the church."  This was obviously controversial in the 1880's.  

He was critical of a religion that did not engage the wider society and believed that "Black Baptists were failing at their Christian social ethical mission precisely because they did not work hard enough at attaining power in American society."

Like many of these theologians, he advocated for racial pride and the contributions of African Americans.  He believed they "must possess more intellectual vigor than any other section of the human family or else who could they be crushed as slaves in all these years since 1620, and yet today stand side by side with the best blood in America."

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Dorrien also discusses E. C. Morris, another of the founders of the National Baptist Convention.  Morris was a pastor in Helena, Arkansas.  I have visited his grave there.  Local leaders were trying to restore the gravesite and the historic black cemetery which had fallen into neglect and ruin.  

Morris believed that black Baptists were capable of freeing "the millions bound in heathen darkness" because they had already in a short time risen from slavery to vitality.

One reason African Americans had to form their own denominations was the supremacist attitude of white Christians.  Dorrien quotes the Rev. J. W. Ford, a white Baptist, speaking before the American Baptist Home Mission Society in St. Louis in 1890 in which he denounced an effort by the denominational press to publish black ministers.  He thought black ministers should tell their congregations "how to behave and where they belonged."  If they couldn't be trusted to do that then, "The alternative is to elevate or exterminate, to use the Bible or bullet.  There is either one or the other of these alternatives for the black man of the South.  A great national peril calls for a great national movement."  My skin crawls reading this vile filth.


The Free Spirit

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Want to quote in full this paragraph from Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition.

As far as DuBois could see, the only Americans who practiced way-of-Christ humility and nonviolence were black Americans.  White Americans asserted themselves and took possession, Du Bois observed.  This was understandable as a rebound from European oppression; moreover, he appreciated that white Americans built up a vital, bustling, prosperous nation.  On the other hand, white American self-assertion was "in many of its aspects a dangerous and awful thing.  It hardens and hurts our souls, it contradicts our philanthropy and religion."  Black Americans had a gift to offer in this area.  It was the gift that black folk had long offered to the New World: "Thus, in singular and fine sense, the slave became master, the bond servant became free, and the meek not only inherited the earth, but made that heritage a thing of questing for eternal youth, of fruitful labor, of joy and music, of the free spirit, and of the ministering hand of wide and poignant sympathy with men in their struggle to live and love, which is, after all, the end of being."


Christ Our Conqueror

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Alexander Walters, a bishop in the AME Zion church and one of the founders of the NAACP who was born into slavery, "saw the churches had untapped ability to change society," according to Gary Dorrien.   His career was spent trying to organize a civil rights movement, and he marshaled his theological views to do so.  Dorrien writes:

For Walters, the love ethic of Jesus was perfect, transforming, and universal.  Christ was 'the inspirer of all the reform movements of the world.' Thus Christianity, rightly understood, was essentially progressive, a river of progress. . . . It would probably take another two thousand years for Christianity to reach its highest development and 'conquer all evils,' he figured: 'Christ our conqueror is riding on gloriously and has the ages before Him.'"

Walters preached that "The whole plan of salvation is the complete restoration of mankind to the image of God.  Purity of life is one of the indispensable requisites for happiness and effectual service."

Preachers should teach how Jesus lived--"His self-denial, His meekness, His purity, His blameless life, His spirit of prayer, His submission to divine will, His patience in suffering, His forgiveness of His enemies, His tenderness to the afflicted, the weak and the tempted, and the manner of His death."

In response to their unjust treatment by white people, black Christians needed to learn to agitate--"By wise agitation I mean an intelligent, reasonable, yet manly presentation of the discrimination and outrages to which we are subjected." Had he lived to see the Civil Rights Movement, he probably would have been proud.


"The last spiritual reserves of humanity"

Reverdy Ransom

"To be serious about abolishing racial caste, the new abolitionists had to reach deep into religious communities through which millions of Americans made moral and spiritual sense of their lives," writes Gary Dorrien in the opening of chapter 5 of The New Abolition. In the last chapter, he discussed the founding of the NAACP, now he backs up a few decades to discuss developments in Black Methodism (chapter six covers key figures and events for Black Baptists).  

He introduces Reverdy Ransom.  At his funeral W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed "He has erected a monument in the history of African Methodism, America, and the world which shall last throughout time and history."  Yet, as Dorrien writes, "Ransom was almost completely forgotten" in the histories of the early civil rights movement.  Dorrien wants to recover him as one of the primary creators of the Black Social Gospel which gave birth to the religious movement for civil rights in the 20th century.

Ransom was born in 1861 "the only child of a powerful, loving woman who assured him he was 'let down from the skies.'"  And he rose to become a bishop in the AME Church.  His mother encouraged education as the way to solve the problem of poverty.

Ransom was one of the first black ministers to begin speaking out about social issues and supporting the anti-lynching movement.  Dorrien writes, "He warned that America could not be truly civilized and savagely terrorize blacks at the same time."

He believed that African-Americans offered a hope for Christianity and the nation.  African-Americans' "deep emotional nature will be the foe of tyranny and oppression and as a religious vehicle will carry the triumph of the King of Kings into the seats of pride and power, and over the dark and barren regions of the globe."

He was a powerful preacher, growing each parish he served through his eloquence and the relevance of his content.  He also guided his churches during the period of the Great Migration, when rural, Southern blacks were flooding northern, industrial cities.  His churches developed many social programs, and he and his wife "shared the life of the urban poor."  Ransom asked the churches, "Shall we sit smug and comfortable in our large churches, or go forth with Jesus Christ into the highways and seek for the sheep that are lost until we find them?"  

When he preached out against gambling; the racketeers dynamited his church.  So the next Sunday he preached "holding a loaded revolver underneath his Bible, taunting from the pulpit, 'Dynamite and violence are a poor answer to an argument.'"

Speaking to the National Reform Convention on the topic of "How Should the Christian State Deal with the Race Problem?" he proclaimed, "There should be no Race Problem in the Christian State."  For "Jesus broke down barriers, treating all human beings alike as human beings."  He denounced Jim Crow as a crime  against "the very life of human spirit" and also unChristian.  He declared that "Christianity will un-Christ itself" if it continued on this white supremacist path.

He advocated a pride of personality "Grounded in the recognition of the divine light within each soul, 'this pride becomes the highest form of meekness which inherits the earth and the heaven, too.'"  Encouraged by the Harlem Renaissance, Ransom declared that "In the highest and best sense, the black people are the only free people in the United States today" because white people were "chained to their prejudices."  Dorrien writes that "Ransom urged that blacks were called to bring white racists to repentance through Christian love, nonviolent protest, and scholarship."  He thought black people were America's conscience and contributed the "peaceable gifts of black soulfulness."  And "Black Christianity modeled what it looked like to take the teaching of Christ to heart."

In 1930 he preached that the white man "only yields or compromises in the face of aggressive, determined, uncompromising power" and never "out of charity or religious feeling."

In 1933 he declared that the white races had failed, they had lost their soul in the oppression of black people.  Therefore, "The African and his descendants are the last spiritual reserves of humanity."

He died in 1959, having long outlived his period of prime influence, dying just as the movement he helped to birth began to achieve the salvation of the country as he had envisioned.

 Incarnate Spirit of Justice was the last post in this series.